Search of Detached Garage Permissible When Warrant Described Only the House?

United States v. Ronquillo, 2024 WL 972215 (10th Cir. 2024)

After receiving a tip from a confidential informant (CI) about drug sales from a residence, investigators watched the house and saw multiple persons enter the residence, stay for a few minutes, then leave. The CI made two separate controlled buys of methamphetamine from a person in the residence. Citing the controlled buys and surveillance, investigators obtained a search warrant for “a single family structure with green siding and trim on the east side of North Linley Court with a black metal security door with the numbers ‘836’ to the right of the door in black.”

The affidavit and warrant did not mention the detached garage. A fence surrounded the property’s front perimeter and another fence extended from the sides of the detached garage, marking the property’s back perimeter. The garage stood about 25 feet away from the residence with a walkway connecting them. It had boarded-up windows and a door facing the backyard; a sealed garage door faced the alley behind the residence.

Officers breached the detached garage to secure the interior and found Richard Ronquillo sleeping on a bed. They ordered him to get up and exit the garage. Ronquillo complied and shoved a plastic bag into his rear pocket before walking out of the garage. Officers detained Ronquillo and frisked him, finding cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin in his pocket. Ronquillo was subsequently charged with possession with intent to distribute drugs. Ronquillo argued the officers’ entry into the garage was unlawful because it was not included in the search warrant. The trial court ruled the warrant allowed a search of the garage since it was within the curtilage of the property being searched. Ronquillo appealed.

The critical question on appeal was whether the garage was actually part of the residence’s curtilage. To be sure, there would have been no question about the lawfulness of the search if the garage had been included in the warrant. Nonetheless, a warrant to search a residence generally includes authority to search all outbuildings within the curtilage. The curtilage is “the area into which extends the intimate activity associated with the sanctity of a man’s home and the privacies of life” (Oliver v. United States, 466 U.S. 170 (1984)).

To be sure, there would have been no question about the lawfulness of the search if the detached garage had been included in the warrant. Nonetheless, a warrant to search a residence generally includes authority to search all outbuildings within the curtilage.

The appellate court applied the four-factor test from United States v. Dunn (480 U.S. 294 (1987). The scope of the curtilage is determined by considering (1) the proximity to the home, (2) whether it is fenced or otherwise enclosed, (3) the nature of the use of the area and (4) the efforts the resident takes to screen the area from public view.

  • Proximity. In Dunn, the Supreme Court noted that a barn 180 feet from the house was not an “adjunct of the house.” Other courts have found that distances of 45 to 50 feet are outside the curtilage of a house (United States v. Brady, 993 F.2d 177 (9th Cir. 1993)). The detached garage in question here was just about 25 feet from the main residence, and a walkway through the backyard connected it to the main residence, leading the court to apply this factor in favor of finding the garage to be within the curtilage.
  • Fencing or enclosures. Whether the area is fenced, particularly with a privacy fence, is an important factor in assessing the scope of the curtilage (In California v. Ciraolo (476 U.S. 207 (1986)), the yard, surrounded by high double fences and within close proximity to the house, was within the curtilage). However, the presence of a fence is not a conclusive boundary of the curtilage. Perimeter fences, especially open wire fences, do not necessarily define the curtilage. The fencing factor is best viewed in conjunction with the question of steps taken to obstruct the open view, and whether the activities conducted within the fence line are intimately associated with the immediate domestic establishment of the home. In this case, the court observed anyone wishing to enter the detached garage had to do so from inside the fence. Thus, the fence and the detached garage “served to demark a specific area of land immediately adjacent to the house that is readily identifiable as part and parcel of the house.”
  • Use of the area. A “detached garage is the type of building which is ordinarily a part of residential property,” as the activity of storing a vehicle in a detached garage is intimately tied to home life. The court noted, “Intimate activities of the home occurred in this detached garage.” Ronquillo used it as a bedroom. In Dunn, the Supreme Court noted it was “especially significant” that the barn where drug precursor chemicals were found was not used “for intimate activities of the home.” Business property is generally considered not to have a curtilage except to the extent the business takes affirmative action to exclude the public from a particular area (Dow Chemical Co. v. United States, 476 U.S. 227 (1986)).
  • Efforts to conceal. This factor is closely related to the presence of fencing. Fencing material designed to obstruct view, rather than to exclude persons or corral animals, works in favor of finding an area is within the curtilage. In this case no one could see inside the detached garage because of the two boarded up windows and sealed garage door facing the alley.

Thus, because the garage was near the main house, enclosed by a fence, used for intimate activities associated with home life (as a bedroom) and shielded from public view, it was part of the curtilage of the property, and the search was within the scope of the warrant.

Ronquillo also claimed he was unreasonably detained because he was outside the immediate vicinity of the premises to be searched when he was arrested. A search warrant for a residence carries the implicit authority to detain persons at the target location during the search: “Officers have three law enforcement interests in detaining an occupant during the execution of a search warrant: officer safety, facilitating the completion of the search, and preventing flight” (Michigan v. Summers, 452 U.S. 692 (1981)). But the detention must occur within the “immediate vicinity of the premises to be searched” (Bailey v. United States, 568 U.S. 186 (2013)). The court held the “immediate vicinity included the detached garage.” Accordingly, Ronquillo’s detention was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over four decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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